Love, Hate, and Change.

There have been several key turning points in the life of U2. Some would credit these re-inventions for U2’s remarkably long and multi-peaked career arc in a music business where careers are increasingly measured in days, not decades. Achtung Baby is one of these turning points, and as such is predictably loved and hated depending on the context of the listener- even within the band! The Edge, U2’s highly unique and equally loved and hated guitarist refers to the work as U2’s finest, while straight shooting drummer Larry Mullen could often be quoted using the word “shit” in his descriptions (most particularly of the name).

Achtung Baby, its accompanying video imagery, and groundbreaking ZOO TV multimedia extravaganza/tour, shocked fans with a new layer of darkness and irony- from a band they had come to know as soul bearing, earnest, preachers of the gospel of rock and roll. In 1991 big hair cheese metal was giving up on the stockings and wigs, The Cure’s lipstick no longer interested anyone, and the gates were stormed by guys in plaid flannel shirts and faux earnest khaki shorts. Just at that pivotal moment- U2’s Bono (who had spent the last decade in “faux earnest” jeans) greased back the hair, put on the wraparound shades, the leather pants, and started playing the role of Ziggy Stardust. As Bob Dylan once said, “The best way to serve an age is to betray it.” U2 even appeared in full drag in promotional pictures and in one of the three different videos for the song One- parodying the scarves and makeup days of Poison, a band with whom they share, not surprisingly, something of a love/hate relationship. The irony, darkness, and ambiguity, while initially disconcerting to fans, was an important step for the continued existence and success of U2. The Edge has described the previous period, centering around their wonderful bellwether hit The Joshua Tree, as a band suffocating in its own idealism and stringent earnesty. The politically charged and involved rockers needed some time to rest, and maybe wallow in pop culture for a while.

Well enough context already, let’s talk about music. Achtung Baby’s most striking aural characteristic is its bold, brash, strange, and memorable guitar riffs atop a highly melodic and pleasant rhythm section. For irony and ambiguity check out Until The End of The World, a dark yet soaring, and even very U2-esque, rock runner supposedly about the betrayal of Christ from Judas’s (!) point of view. For strange guitars and neat rhythms try Even Better Than the Real Thing, which features the traditional comforts of bongos and a rolling bass line, and then confronts you with a multi octave (!) pitch shifting guitar effect and a solo with a strong middle eastern flavor. All of this, you’ll have to take my word on this one, wrapped up in well-crafted rock/pop songs. Really.

Achtung Baby’s most enduring moment is easily the tremendous hit One, which blessed radio airwaves for months. A perfectly balanced beautiful, yet just slightly gritty, ballad that has as many distinct interpretations as listeners. Some say it was about AIDS (proceeds from the single were donated to AIDS research)- some say it is about love, others about war, race, romance, lust. Three different videos were made by three different directors- all three were released and saw significant airplay on MTV. To this day I don’t know what the song is about but the overarching theme seems to be one of brotherly love and understanding. Is is getting better? / or do you feel the same? / does it make it easier on you now / you've got someone to blame? Well its too late, tonight / to drag the past out into the light ... We’re one / but we’re not the same / we’ve got to carry each other / carry each other / One.

Achtung Baby was the beginning of a defining epoch for U2, one that lasted a full decade and is just now being swallowed up in a new Beautiful Day for the lads.

The line 'Achtung baby' comes from the 1966 Gene Wilder film The Producers. In the film a pair of Broadway directors put on Springtime for Hitler - a musical intended to be a flop so as to effect a tax dodge. Dick Shaw's character, a spaced-out hippy actor playing Hitler, says the memorable line.

It sounds cute and memorable because people tend not to think that such a frivolous word like 'baby' could ever be said by a German.

Mel Brooks would again later use this phrase, and others from the film like "Don't be stupid be a smartie, come and join the Nazi Party" in his 1983 single To be or Not to be. Unlike Springtime for Hitler his single flopped, and not by design.

To all the little mothers in the Fatherland
I said "Achtung baby! I got me a plan."
They said "What you got, Adolf? What you gonna do?"
I said "How about this one? World War Two."

Subsequently a U2 crewmember liked using the phrase and it stuck with the group. It appears in the lyrics of The Fly. And the album did not flop.

Achtung Baby, released in November 1991, is U2's sixth album. Released after U2's earnest, anthemic albums of the 1980s, Achtung Baby, with its dark, ironic, and moody sound, was very much a surprise. The album began a decade-long experimentation with electronic sounds and dance beats, continuing two years later with the more openly-experimental Zooropa.

Musically, this may be U2's most densely textured album, forsaking the wide-open rock of The Joshua Tree without adding any of the minimalism that informed many parts of Zooropa. The texture varies throughout the album, but never really seems to 'break out' the way earlier U2 songs did.

  1. Zoo Station (4:36)
    The album begins with a heavily distorted guitar riff and the faint tapping of hammered glass. This unusual opening eventually, with the full-scale entrance of guitars and the rhythm section, leads into something that sounds something like classic U2. Nevertheless, the distortion effect used on Bono's voice and the corresponding distorted guitar create a sound that is markedly different than the band's previous work, despite a bass line that sounds like it's straight off The Joshua Tree. Later in the song, vocal loops and synthesiser sounds lead the song further from the U2 mainstream. It ends with a repeat of the opening's reverberant drums, this time accompanied by bass and and guitar.
  2. Even Better Than The Real Thing (3:41)
    This song begins with a distorted, repetitive, octave-shifting guitar riff before entering into the bass-backed main section. On the chorus, the Infinite Guitar sound comes to the forefront for the first time in the album, while it remains in the background through the verses. The bridge features a heavily distorted guitar part which ends with multiple-octave leaps before continuing towards the chorus and the inevitable ending
  3. One (4:36)
    This enduring classic begins with the tapping of drumsticks before its gentle and quiet guitar riff enters, followed by the vocals. The lyric is one of U2's all-time best, focusing on interpersonal connections in many different levels. The instrumentation builds and becomes more insistent as the song proceeds, releasing some of its tension in occasional instrumental breaks. Strings enter after a couple minutes and do not sound out of place. For all of its seeming simplicity, the song plays host to a wonderful amount of texture as it proceeds casually to a climax and then the ending.
  4. Until The End Of The World (4:38)
    One of the best songs on the album, this brings the lyrical ambiguity and musical darkness of the albums to new levels. Like several other songs on the album it lacks a verse-chorus-verse structure and proceeds instead in a linear storytelling fashion. The instrumentation strengthens the dark, intimate mood of the lyrics and acts to sweep the listener away from each scene after it is narrated.
  5. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses (4:38)
    One of the radio hits from the album, it begins with an unusual electronic noise before the distorted guitar cuts in. An overrated song, it is one of the less interesting ones on Achtung Baby. The chorus is classic U2 but the verses fall somewhat flat.
  6. So Cruel (5:49)
    This slow, piano-accented song brings the newly-found 'dark side' to U2 into sharp focus. Dealing with the troubles that may arise in an intimate interpersonal relationship, it remains very vocal-centred, its quiet but not minimalist accompaniment remaining subordinate. The poetry of the lyric is detailed and effective, as fitting for such a vocal-centred piece.
  7. The Fly (4:29)
    One of the more experimental songs on the album, The Fly marries an insistent, distorted guitar riff to an equally frantic and dark lyric during the verses. Then in the chorus, a conventional soaring U2 vocal line and the same half-spoken tone used in the verses are overlaid over a wide-open instrumentation. These alternate fairly rapidly as the song proceeds, and soon they are joined by a distorted and indistinct guitar line before it all draws to a close.
  8. Mysterious Ways (4:03)
    Possibly the best-known song from the album, this song, despite the distortion, sounds relatively close to U2's previous sound. As with many other songs on the album, much of it is driven by the bass line, especially the chorus. Guitars are mainly used to provide ornamentation and flourishes at the start, but in the bridge there is a simple but interesting guitar solo. Brighter than most of the album, this song exudes optimism and hope.
  9. Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World (3:52)
    A downtempo song, everthing about it feels slowed-down. Some of the more imagistic lyrics of this period of U2's career are found here, nestled among the swaying texture of the instrumentation. Towards the end, the lyrics and vocals make a brief shift to a more 'open' sound, returning quickly to the encompassing mood of the rest of the song. The instrumentation clears up once more at the ending of the song before falling silent.
  10. Ultra Violet (Light My Way) (5:30)
    Its introduction foreshadowing some of the spacey textures of Zooropa, this song then quickly breaks out into a traditionalist U2 riff. One of the more explicitly romantic, even sexual, lyrics on the album is here paired with a bright sonic palette befitting its optimistic theme. The song 'breaks out' quite dramatically towards the end, spiralling and tumbling joyfully towards the ending.
  11. Acrobat (4:30)
    Sounding like a conventional album closer, this ambiguously upbeat song's clanging guitar riff and conversational lyric have a sense of closure to them. The recurring line of 'Don't let the bastards grind you down' ensures that optimism in the end wins out, but the song's mood flip-flops between optimism and pessimism a few times before the bright, final-sounding ending.
  12. Love is Blindness (4:23)
    At first, I thought this elegiac song felt somewhat 'tacked on' to the album and that the preceding song deserved to be the true closer. The more I listened to it, the more I realised that it was the most fitting closure this album could have. The multi-layered poetry of the song is fittingly discussed at Love is Blindness, but a word to its instrumentation is certainly needed. The mood of the song is perfectly sustained by the wavering bass and subtle percussion, as well as the 'screaming' guitar that comes in and out of the background. As the song proceeds towards the ending Bono's wordless singing and a heavily distorted guitar solo merge and proceed towards a perfectly-placed fadeout.

As a turning point in U2's career and as an album on its own merits, this must be considered one of the best albums of the early 1990's. It represents an abrupt left turn for U2's sound, leading to a decade of experimentation, some more successful, some less. Furthermore, it remains, despite its emotional range, a well-integrated and coherent album, one that is eminently listenable.


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This writeup is copyright 2004 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/ .

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